nothing commoner than snow

Of tribulation these are they
Denoted by the white;
The spangled gowns, a lesser rank
Of victors designate.

All these did conquer; but the ones
Who overcame most times
Wear nothing commoner than snow,
No ornament but palms.

Surrender is a sort unknown
On this superior soil;
Defeat, an outgrown anguish,
Remembered as the mile

Our panting ankle barely gained
When night devoured the road;
But we stood whispering in the house,
And all we said was “Saved!”

~Emily Dickinson
Image by Radu Andrei Razvan via Pexels.

More death. Dickinson must have spent a lot of time thinking about it–so much time that she has a variety of different reactions and attitudes toward it. Sometimes it’s a suitor, welcome, chivalrous. Sometimes it’s an adversary. Sometimes it is longed for as relief from suffering, while other times the act of dying is itself the supreme trial.

There’s a lot of interesting, evocative, and tricksy language in this poem. In the first stanza, those who wear white are the ones who have overcome (or at least endured) tribulation. A lesser rank, presumably of the dead, wear “spangled gowns.” The contrast is interesting–those who are higher wear plain white, while those who are “lesser” are more elaborately adorned. The “lesser” are, however, still “victors.” All here have triumphed.

All of them, she goes on to elaborate in the second stanza, have been victorious, but those in white “overcame most times.” Their reward? Their only ornaments are palms, and the color of their raiment is “nothing commoner than snow.” Dickinson’s use of “commoner” suggests that snow is not common–they don’t wear anything commoner than this. At the same time, snow is fairly common, we know–certainly in New England. So there’s a paradoxical turn of phrase here, which perhaps is meant to underscore the paradox of the highest being clothed the most simply. Heaven, after all, is an upside-down kingdom where the last shall be first.

On the “superior soil” of heaven, surrender is unknown, and defeat is merely a memory, like the reminiscence of the last mile of a particularly difficult night journey.

The final stanza brings us out of heaven and back to Earth, back into a mortal, living perspective. Dickinson shifts from the white-clothed and bespangled victors to those they left behind: “But we stood whispering in the house, / And all we said was ‘Saved!'” That is all the living can say, all they can know. They can only guess at the rank and raiment of the deceased in heaven.

This, of course, begs the question–how can the speaker know? She identifies herself in the last stanza with personal pronouns as one of the “we,” one of the living left behind. Yet she is informing us about the status of the dead and saved. More paradox. So I’m left not entirely sure of exactly what she’s getting at, and once again wondering if I’m a bit dull, or if perhaps this was precisely the effect Dickinson was going for.

Pathos!!

A poor torn heart, a tattered heart,
That sat it down to rest,
Nor noticed that the ebbing day
Flowed silver to the west,
Nor noticed night did soft descend
Nor constellation burn,
Intent upon the vision
Of latitudes unknown.

The angels, happening that way,
This dusty heart espied;
Tenderly took it up from toil
And carried it to God.
There,—sandals for the barefoot;
There,—gathered from the gales,
Do the blue havens by the hand
Lead the wandering sails.

~Emily Dickinson

Dickinson is definitely going for the pathos with this one. “A poor torn heart, a tattered heart.” Intent upon its visions, the “heart” does not see the ebbing day, the encroaching night. It slips away, into the embrace of angels who carry it to God. I don’t know what to say about this one because it seems too obvious. And maybe a little cutesy, too, compared to the angst and existential dread of which Dickinson is so capable.

This is the kind of poem that makes me really, really wonder who Dickinson was. Was she this person? Or the person who wrote about the numbness of death? Or was she both? I suppose we all contain multitudes, and all of these are her. But some of her poems are rather difficult to reconcile with other ones. This feels like the kind of poem that would have been written by Emily Dickinson, Good Christian Girl. Very different from yesterday’s, which was clearly penned by Emily Dickinson, Preacher’s Kid Gone Wild.

But hey! It wraps up a month of (largely) shipwreck poems with a reference to salvaged ships, so it’s all good.

The lighthouse spark: a NaNoWriMo prompt

GOOD night! which put the candle out?
A jealous zephyr, not a doubt.
Ah! friend, you little knew
How long at that celestial wick
The angels labored diligent;
Extinguished, now, for you!

It might have been the lighthouse spark
Some sailor, rowing in the dark,
Had importuned to see!
It might have been the waning lamp
That lit the drummer from the camp
To purer reveille!

~Emily Dickinson

Happy National Novel Writing Month! Confession: I haven’t started yet. But. In honor of NaNoWriMo, today’s post is a prompt inspired by this poem for everyone out there NaNo-ing.

What is your character’s “lighthouse spark”? What is their compass, their north star, the thing that orients them? What if you take that thing away?

The stillest night

LET down the bars, O Death!
The tired flocks come in
Whose bleating ceases to repeat,
Whose wandering is done.

Thine is the stillest night,
Thine the securest fold;
Too near thou art for seeking thee,
Too tender to be told.

~Emily Dickinson

One of the things I’ve learned so far over the course of this year is that there are many iterations of Peak Emily. There’s the delighting-in-birds Emily. The angsty unrequited-love Emily. There’s the seemingly less well-known meta-Emily who thinks about the nature of thinking.

But always, always, there is in-love-with-death Emily. “Because I could not stop for death” has got to be the most famous of this iteration, but this poem is definitely in that vein. In this poem, however, death is not lover but shepherd. The Biblical allusion is clear. Dickinson paints a portrait of death that is at once restful and divine–Death here is essentially God himself.

As October poems go, this one is a bit of an odd choice, but it does have to do with death, and there is something admittedly creepy about anyone who seems happy about the idea that death is “too near…for seeking.”

A spider

A spider sewed at night
Without a light
Upon an arc of white.
If ruff it was of dame
Or shroud of gnome,
Himself, himself inform.
Of immortality
His strategy
Was physiognomy.

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Pexels.com

I just want to take a moment to appreciate the quirkiness of this poem. I love the notion that a spider might be weaving a garment of some kind–a ruff for a dame, a shroud for a gnome. I incline to the latter. What kind of dame is going to wear a spiderweb ruff? A gnome, on the other hand–this is totally plausible.

I love these little moments when Dickinson’s sense of whimsy triumphs. It makes me wonder how she experienced the world every day. I had this notion of her, when I was a student, as this incredibly depressed, tortured soul. That’s what we were taught to think. But she also had a fantastically quirky view of the world. She saw magic in the ordinary. I don’t think we can celebrate that too much.